American Gulag

Category: World Affairs Topics: Crime And Justice, Guantanamo Bay, Human Rights Views: 2907

Torture, force-feeding and darkness at noon -- this is Guantanamo, Thomas Wilner, a lawyer for prisoners says.

Thomas Wilner is a partner at Shearman & Sterling, which has been representing Kuwaiti prisoners in Guantanamo since early 2002

The American prison camp at Guantanamo Bay is on the southeast corner of Cuba, a sliver of land the United States has occupied since 1903. Long ago, it was irrigated from lakes on the other side of the island, but Cuban President Fidel Castro cut off the water supply years ago. So today, Guantanamo produces its own water from a 30-year-old desalination plant. The water has a distinct yellow tint. All Americans drink bottled water imported by the planeload. Until recently, prisoners drank the yellow water.

The prison overlooks the sea, but the ocean cannot be seen by prisoners. Guard towers and stadium lights loom along the perimeter. On my last visit, we were escorted by young, solemn military guards whose nameplates on their shirts were taped over so that prisoners could not identify them.

Very few outsiders are allowed to see the prisoners. The government has orchestrated some carefully controlled tours for the media and members of Congress, but has repeatedly refused to allow these visitors, representatives of the United Nations, human rights groups or nonmilitary doctors and psychiatrists to meet or speak with prisoners. So far, the only outsiders who have done so are representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross - who are prohibited by their own rules from disclosing what they find - and lawyers for the prisoners.

I am one of those lawyers. I represent six Kuwaiti prisoners, each of whom has now spent nearly four years at Guantanamo. It took me 2 1/2 years to gain access to my clients, but now I have visited the prison camp 11 times in the last 14 months. What I have witnessed is a cruel and eerie netherworld of concrete and barbed wire that has become a daily nightmare for the nearly 500 people swept up after 9/11 who have been imprisoned without charges or trial for more than four years. It is truly our American gulag.

On my most recent trip three weeks ago, after signing a log sheet and submitting our bags to a search, my colleagues and I were taken through two tall, steel-mesh gates into the interior of the prison camp.

We interviewed our clients in Camp Echo, one of several camps where prisoners are interrogated. We entered a room about 13 feet square and divided in half by a wall of thick steel mesh. On one side was a table where the prisoner would sit for our interviews, his feet shackled to a steel eyelet cemented to the floor. On the other side were a shower and a cell just like the ones in which prisoners are ordinarily confined. In their cells, prisoners sleep on a metal shelf against the wall, which is flanked by a toilet and sink. They are allowed a thin foam mattress and a gray cotton blanket.

The Pentagon's files on the six Kuwaiti prisoners we represent reveal that none was captured on a battlefield or accused of engaging in hostilities against the U.S. The prisoners claim that they were taken into custody by Pakistani and Afghan warlords and turned over to the U.S. for bounties ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 - a claim confirmed by American news reports. We have obtained copies of bounty leaflets distributed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. forces promising rewards - "enough to feed your family for life" - for any "Arab terrorist" handed over.

The files include only the flimsiest accusations or hearsay that would never stand up in court. The file on one prisoner indicated that he had been seen talking to two suspected Al Qaeda members on the same day - at places thousands of miles apart. The primary "evidence" against another was that he was captured wearing a particular Casio watch, "which many terrorists wear." Oddly, the same watch was being worn by the U.S. military chaplain, a Muslim, at Guantanamo.

When I first met my clients, they had not seen or spoken with their families for more than three years, and they had been questioned hundreds of times. Several were suspicious of us; they told me that they had been interrogated by people who claimed to be their lawyers but who turned out not to be. So we had DVDs made, on which members of their families told them who we were and that we could be trusted. Several cried on seeing their families for the first time in years. One had become a father since he was detained and had never before seen his child. One noticed his father was not on the DVD, and we had to tell him that his father had died.

Most prisoners are kept apart, although some can communicate through the steel mesh or concrete walls that separate their cells. They exercise alone, some only at night. They had not seen sunlight for months - an especially cruel tactic in a tropical climate. One prisoner told me, "I have spent almost every moment of the last three years, and eaten every meal, here in this small cell which is my bathroom." Other than the Koran, prisoners had nothing to read. As a result of our protests, some have been given books.

Every prisoner I've interviewed claims to have been badly beaten and subjected to treatment that only could be called torture, by Americans, from the first day of U.S. captivity in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They said they were hung by their wrists and beaten, hung by their ankles and beaten, stripped naked and paraded before female guards, and given electric shocks. At least three claimed to have been beaten again upon arrival in Guantanamo. One of my clients, Fayiz Al Kandari, now 27, said his ribs were broken during an interrogation in Pakistan. I felt the indentation in his ribs. "Beat me all you want, just give me a hearing," he said he told his interrogators.

Another prisoner, Fawzi Al Odah, 25, is a teacher who left Kuwait City in 2001 to work in Afghan, then Pakistani, schools. After 9/11, he and four other Kuwaitis were invited to dinner by a Pakistani tribal leader and then sold by him into captivity, according to their accounts, later confirmed by Newsweek and ABC News.

On Aug. 8, 2005, Fawzi, in desperation, went on a hunger strike to assert his innocence and to protest being imprisoned for four years without charges. He said he wanted to defend himself against any accusations, or die. He told me that he had heard U.S. congressmen had returned from tours of Guantanamo saying that it was a Caribbean resort with great food. "If I eat, I condone these lies," Fawzi said.

At the end of August, after Fawzi fainted in his cell, guards began to force-feed him through tubes pushed up his nose into his stomach. At first, the tubes were inserted for each feeding and then removed afterward. Fawzi told me that this was very painful. When he tried to pull out the tubes, he was strapped onto a stretcher with his head held by many guards, which was even more painful.

By mid-September, the force-feeding had been made more humane. Feeding tubes were left in and the formula pumped in. Still, when I saw Fawzi, a tube was protruding from his nose. Drops of blood dripped as we talked. He dabbed at it with a napkin.

We asked for Fawzi's medical records so we could monitor his weight and his health. Denied. The only way we could learn how Fawzi was doing was to visit him each month, which we did. When we visited him in November, his weight had dropped from 140 pounds to 98 pounds. Specialists in enteral feeding advised us that the continued drop in his weight and other signs indicated that the feeding was being conducted incompetently. We asked that Fawzi be transferred to a hospital. Again, the government refused.

When we saw Fawzi in December, his weight had stabilized at about 110 pounds. The formulas had been changed, and he was being force-fed by medical personnel rather than by guards.

When I met with Fawzi three weeks ago, the tubes were out of his nose. I told him I was thankful that after five months he had ended his hunger strike. He looked at me sadly and said, "They tortured us to make us stop." At first, he said, they punished him by taking away his "comfort items" one by one: his blanket, his towel, his long pants, his shoes. They then put him in isolation. When this failed to persuade him to end the hunger strike, he said, an officer came to him Jan. 9 to announce that any detainee who refused to eat would be forced onto "the chair." The officer warned that recalcitrant prisoners would be strapped into a steel device that pulled their heads back, and that the tubes would be forced in and wrenched out for each feeding. "We're going to break this hunger strike," the officer told him.

Fawzi said he heard the prisoner next door screaming and warning him to give up the strike. He decided that he wasn't "on strike to be tortured." He said those who continued on the hunger strike not only were strapped in "the chair" but were left there for hours; he believes that guards fed them not only nutrients but also diuretics and laxatives to force them to defecate and urinate on themselves in the chair.

After less than two weeks of this treatment, the strike was over. Of the more than 80 strikers at the end of December, Fawzi said only three or four were holding out. As a result of the strike, however, prisoners are now getting a meager ration of bottled water.

Fawzi said eating was the only aspect of life at Guantanamo he could control; forcing him to end the hunger strike stripped him of his last means of protesting his unjust imprisonment. Now, he said, he feels "hopeless."

The government continues to deny that there is any injustice at Guantanamo. But I know the truth.

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Crime And Justice, Guantanamo Bay, Human Rights
Views: 2907

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Older Comments:
I'd tell you that anti-Muslim sentiment is strong in the West and the USA, but you know it. I have to tell you one more thing -- after this war in Iraq (not in Afghanistan) is over, I do believe that Madame Condoleezza Rice has a scheme.
She will play silly and blame the Guantanamo Bay Intelligence Embarrassment on Honorable Richard Chaney as has been agreed in between them; and people will believe her.
People with IQ over 130 (geniuses) should never be allowed into the government (this is why I do like our current president) . They know that they are so smart that they can cheat others without getting caught.

for heaven's sake, if they are guilty of any crimes, then try them in a proper court of law and not any cangaroo style. justice must be seen to be done. otherwise this is another blot on th us image and karma is well and alive.

It was predictable that people who value Allah more than this life, and are not afraid to die, would be tortured. The people in Guantanamo were martyrs from the first time, and it makes me sick that I live in America and have to work alongside people who have told me torture is alright if it's for national defense. But what "Muslim" country is better? The Prophet went to Medina -- where shall we go?

Response to 'J':
The muslims responses are the reaction to the terrorism, hatred, discrimination, double standard policies and bias from the western countries.
Of-course some muslim leaders are puppets/ afraid, and equally responsible to support the western countries to promote their agendas by allowing illegal prisons, torture camps in their own countries for their own citizens.
But us(US) as a civilised country we must give equal rights and access to the prisoners whether in USA or G-Bay,Iraq,Afghanistan or in any muslim country prison run by us.Don't you think so?
It is a shame that we fight in the name of religion when our God and Prophets are same.This is a crystal clear and no doubt left.


It seems a military interrogator told a detainee not to trust his lawyers because they are Jewish.
The detainee told her, "There are good people who believe in justice in every religion." Source:

This article brought me to tears. I look at myself and realise how lucky I am. Allah SWT has kept me away from all this.

However, what am I doing to stop this or at least stand up for it? Very little. I am sitting at home in my comfy chair thinking about what restaurant I could go to.

I ask Allah SWT to forgive me for my inadequacy and ask Allah SWT to give me the strength to stand up against this injustice.

May All the people of this world who believe in justice make a stand against this?

Anyone got some ideas for action?

I am tired of the typical responses that I read from Muslims when issues like this are raised, like "This is the real terrorism". So I suppose that other terrorism, committed by people who call themselves Muslim is fake terrorism? Or, it's okay to murder innocent people, because Americans do bad things too?

In Canada, we recently had the case of Maher Arar in the spotlight. He was a Canadian of Syrian origin who was removed from a flight while on stopover in the US. Rather than returning him to Canada, the US sent him to Syria where he was tortured mercilessly for more than a year. Muslims were upset with the US for sending him to Syria, they were upset with the Canadian government for not getting him home sooner - but Syria? No one seemed upset with Syria. Why? Because it's a "Muslim" country.

There you have it. Our sense of right and wrong has been politicized, twisted by WHO is committing the act, rather then whether the act is right or wrong. The prisoner camps in Guantanamo are a travesty - a disgusting violation of human rights. What about our fellow Muslims who are routinely tortured in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Morrocco, etc? Do they not warrant the same outrage from us? Whenever non-Muslims ask about terrorism that is committed in the name of Islam, we become defensive and start talking loudly about Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. How does that justify atrocities committed by Muslims?

It is time to take our head out of the sand. Too many Muslims have an 'Us' vs 'Them' mentality. They refuse to address the terrorism and atrocities that are committed against Muslims, BY Muslims in the "Muslim" world. They allow themselves to be manipulated by politics, and refuse to take responsibility for their own behaviour, and the behaviour of fellow Muslims. If people in Muslim countries are denied human rights, are ignorant and uneducated and filled with hate, we have ourselves to blame. Even if Guantanamo closes, the problems in the Muslim world still

It is worst than so-called by No.1 Terrorist Nation of the world.

i am ashamed to be an American. God will punish this country, i know, but i am sad that so many innocent people will probably have to suffer.


This article deeply moves and saddens me at the same time.

Why does Thomas Wilner not try to do more like contacting the media in this country? Is there not a SINGLE tv channel that will air his views? Is there not a single book company that will publish his views? What about newspapers and tv channels in other countries? What about appealing to the governments of the Middle East - can they do nothing?? I know these questions might sounds naive to many - but that is the point. What will it take on the part of our actions to get some results and free these innocents? Has Thomas Wilner tried contacting the American Civil Liberties Union?

What about the recent news items that the UN refused to visit Guantanamo bay under the US governments strict watch - what is the real story behind that?

Is there a petition online going around my muslims that we can sign and press as a collective many, to free these innocents?

May Allay reward us all for our efforts.

This is the real terrorism.

Thank You, Atty. Wilner. You remind us that Muslims are headed the way of the German Jews in the 30's and 40's. Muslims, we must not think that the USA is too civilized to go the way of Nazi Germany. Do not think that if you prove to them that you are good and loyal-they will spare you. Allah is our only hope and salvation. We must not give up, if we are tested. There is a hadith that says-in essence- that whatever hardship, or pain a Muslim suffers even the prick of a thorn- removes a sin. We must put our trust in Allah; there is no might nor power except through Allah.